Loosen up. Get flexible. Activate muscles. Refresh blood flow.
Let’s say it together: “This is as critical to my race as crossing the finish line.”
“We have a lot of runners these days who don’t take the warm-up and cool-down regimens as seriously as they should,” said Beacon Sports Performance coach Shawn Major-Winston. “Running is a very strenuous exercise, with ground impact on every step. It is a full-body workout that must be treated with respect.” Shawn, a former Indiana University football player and current Chicago Lions rugby player wouldn’t dream of running a race without a proper warm up and cool down. He said we shouldn’t either.
If a runner goes directly to dynamic stretching, he/she will risk tightening up and possibly hurting the muscles rather than releasing and preparing them. So it is highly recommended that you do a light trot or jog for at least two minutes, then go into static stretching.
“When I am getting ready to run, I like to first release the spindles, which are springy-like body parts in the bed of the muscle tissue. These cause a reflex contraction which is a quick tightening of the muscle at the moment of being stretched. Shawn recommends holding a static stretch for at least 10 seconds to release these spindles. (The muscles spindles are released due to the Golgi tendon organs—located in the bed of the tendon—being activated.)
- Many studies support the fact that if you do static stretching too long before an event, you risk relaxing the muscles too much, thus preventing them to contract to their optimum ability.
- If you hold the stretch for under 10 seconds your body won’t be ready to respond to the quick contractions of running.
The purpose of dynamic stretching is to activate muscle fibers. Certain patterns of movement target specific muscle fibers—agonist fibers (contracting)—and simultaneously you will get a good stretch in the antagonist fibers (think hamstring/quad,) resulting in the muscles fibers preparing to work and work together.
Now it is time to “practice” your run, continuing to loosen up and activating sympathetic nervous system and the muscles for running. Begin with high knees, butt kicks, straight-legged runs, power skips and bounds. Then move into your strides, starting at 50 percent effort and building to no more than 90 percent, Shawn advises. “Even as a trained rugby athlete, I never run 100 percent outside of competition, due to risk of injury because running is just so strenuous,” Shawn said.
Lastly, get personal. “Take a moment to work on your own ‘kinks,’” he said. These are your muscles and tendons that require a bit more attention due to past or chronic injuries —yes, your proverbial Achilles tendons. You’ll know—it may be the lower back, hip flexors, IT band, hamstrings, quads or foot and ankle. “These are issues every runner is going to come across, so just give them a little extra time and attention.”
Hydration. Think of hydration as a way to remove the toxins from your blood and improve blood flow, “So your body can provide good, clean, nourishing blood to the muscles.” Shawn has a few tips for maximizing hydration:
- Cherry tart concentrate (mixed with water for palatability) serves as an efficient antioxidant.
- Pedialyte is also a quick, efficient drink that provides a good amount of electrolytes, vitamins and minerals.
- Water obviously. But Shawn advises: Do not risk over-hydration which can cause headaches.
Solids. You need unsaturated fats for long-term energy, good grains for reserve energy and protein for muscle recovery. A fistful of grapes or a small portion of any fruit is a good choice for pre-race carbs.
Consider the timing of your pre-race meal, Shawn said. “I like to allow time for gastric emptying, so that my meal has made it to my small intestine by the time I race.” He admits this can be a bit challenging for early-morning events since it takes fats about four hours to digest, proteins about two hours and an hour for carbs.
The wait time is important, not only to prevent nausea on the run, but to allow the blood to focus on flowing to the muscles that are working. If food is still in the stomach, blood will be slower to make it to the muscles along with other risks.
After the finish line
Bring it down from run, jog, trot, then walk in order to bring your oxygen intake back to normal.
- Walking with your hands over your head will help open the rib cage and lungs for greater oxygen intake.
- Incorporate your static stretches post-race and enjoy your day. But don’t forget you are still in recovery!
- As soon as you are able, take in some quick -digesting carbs (fruit is ideal) and good protein (nuts, peanut butter) for recovery. How strenuous the event was for your body determines how many calories you will need to replace.
- On race night, consider an ice bath. The nearly-freezing water constricts the vascular system, squeezing the “old blood” back to the heart where it can be re-oxygenated and freshened. “Think of it as a way to clean out your blood,” Shawn said, “but no longer than five to 10 minutes to avoid hypothermia.”
Continue to pay attention to hydration—bring on the Pedialyte! Also, active recovery (a good walk, easy run, ride, swim) will get the muscles contracting again and thus keep blood flowing to remove calcium deposits (lactic acid) from the muscles.
And while Shawn steers away from processed sugar as a general rule, he sees nothing wrong with downing a few Sweedish fish before and after an event. “Just small amounts. It may be a placebo effect, but I feel it helps me.”
Shawn Major-Winston is a Sports performance coach at Beacon Health & Fitness and is certified through the American Council of Exercise. Learn more at BeaconHealthandFitness.org